Humble Boy at the Orange Theatre
Dependent on your tolerance for posh white people, the Orange Tree Theatre’s production of Humble Boy might test your patience. This isn’t to say Charlotte Jones’s play – first put on at the National Theatre 17 years ago – is bad; it’s actually quite fantastic in places. It’s just that an over-familiarity with the kind of tale being told – one largely comprised of middle-class sniping – dulls the edges of the playwright’s narrative.
It would help if the whole thing didn’t hinge on a such simpering, cut-rate Hamlet. Felix Humble (Jonathan Broadbent) has returned to the family home following the sudden death of his beekeeping father – the entire work is indebted to Shakespeare’s most famous creation, but with a bit more science –, at a loss of how to eulogise his departed dad. Complicating matters is the protagonist’s discovery of an affair between his mother (Belinda Lang) and local businessman George Pye (Paul Bradley). Oh, and George just happens to be the pops of Felix’s former flame Rosie (Rebekah Hinds), who may have a little secret of her own. It’s a tangled, often farcical web of relationships that leaves our Humble boy rendered completely inert.
Broadbent’s theoretical astrophysicist is a diet great Dane: equally myopic but with brooding intensity swapped out for bumbling – and borderline irritating – incompetence. It’s doubtful that Jones meant for Felix to be particularly likeable; however, he’s so hard to care about – quite the feat for someone whose dad has just died – that the drama is left with a gaping hole at its centre. The problem is that the world doesn’t need more stories about emotionally distant – but (ostensibly) intelligent – male scientists.
The rest of the characters are a smidge more interesting. There’s a nice class-based tension between Lang’s acid-tongued Flora and Bradley’s boorish George, while Hinds gets a lot of the best lines as the BS-less Rosie. And by staging the performance in Simon Daw’s perfectly middle-England back garden, director Paul Miller manages to milk the play dry laughs-wise. Though it’s merely tittersome in the first half, the classically awkward al fresco family meal that dominates act two soon has the audience guffawing. But still, it’s all tempered by how conventional the production feels.
The Orange Tree has a bit of a reputation for rediscovering forgotten classics, and for many Humble Boy will fall right into that bracket. One just can’t help but wish for a bit of the boldness that brought about the electrifying Pomona and An Octoroon.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
Humble Boy is at the Orange Theatre from 8th March until 14th April 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.